Dining out with my wife in a restaurant in Paris recently, I became aware of the well-dressed Frenchman seated with his wife two tables away from us listening in on our conversation. The table for two between us was unoccupied.
“Where are you from?” he inquired, in excellent English, when he saw I had noticed.
America I said.
“What did you think of your elections two weeks ago?”
I told him I thought the Republicans did pretty well, considering.
“And what do you think of Trump?”
I said I like him very much and think he’s doing a good job as president. (I added that I’m keen on Brexit, too.)
He looked me over quickly.
“But you are trés distingué. How could you vote for Trump?”
I explained as briefly as possible that the stereotype of the Trump voter as an ignorant blue-collar white man of the lower-middle classes, while accurate to a degree, is only that—a stereotype. Most of my oldest friends, I added, are graduates from the Ivy League, many wealthy, some gentlemen and scholars, a few of them even handsome, and a good many voted for Donald Trump. His wife observed me impassively as I spoke. Perhaps she did not understand English. Her husband gave up at last and returned to his dinner. I told them “bon soir” as we left, and he responded with a noncommittal nod as I passed behind him on the way out.
“Populism” cannot be understood in the terms in which it is commonly presented, in the United States or in Europe. People speak of right-wing populism, and of a populism of the left. Not long ago a columnist for the Daily Telegraph referred to Emmanuel Macron’s “populist ‘anti-politics’”—an interesting concept. “[W]e all need to recognise,” Mark Almond wrote, “that populism of the centre—unanchored from the concerns of any constituency of any side—cannot hold.” Referring to the violent demonstrations that threaten President Macron’s government, he added pointedly, “France’s crisis should dispel the Remainers’ fantasy that a bit of centrist populism here can magically resolve the discontents that led to Brexit or to the E.U.-wide collapse of faith in the old order.”
The fact, or anyway the idea, of a centrist populism in addition to its variations left and right demonstrates the utter inadequacy of the view (“popular” in itself) of populism as a movement by the ignorant and unwashed masses gathered at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In reality, populism viewed as a centrist force comes closest to the truth, if it is not indeed spot on it. It is a natural defensive reaction by significant social elements against a powerful human and social abnormality represented by a certain type of “establishment”: the politically, economically, and culturally dominant stratum of society. This abnormality is whatever sort of unnatural ideological system the elite class that developed and promotes it to enforce and perpetuate its political, social, and economic hegemony is forcing on the social body at any given time. Such an ideological formation can be rightist, leftist, or centrist. The nature of the underpinning ideology is irrelevant. The essential thing is that it has taken form as an intellectual and political system that represents, supports, and furthers the interests of the dominant class, while disfavoring those of the classes and interests below it. (Importantly, the “dominant class” is not necessarily the equivalent of an undemocratic elite, nor need it be incompatible with “democracy” when it takes the form of majoritarianism, as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Joseph C. Sternberg, has noted. Commenting on the French riots touched off by Macron’s plan to raise the national tax on diesel fuel, Sternberg argued that the problem with contemporary French politics is that it exemplifies an excess of democracy—not a dearth of it—which guarantees that the unassailable and unshakable popular majority cannot be challenged effectively by political means. Macron’s—and the Fifth Republic’s—plight, he thinks, should be a warning to “America’s ascendant left” as it contemplates what it imagines to be its majoritarian future assured by changing demographics and the increasingly unequal geographical distribution of various interests grouped unevenly about the country.)
Historical examples of such systems include ones based on religions whose origins are either human rather than divine, or alien to the society on which they are forcibly imposed; empires created by military, political, or economic conquest (which is pretty much all of them); narrowly conceived and intellectually simplistic but broadly imposed and rigorously applied economic theories—mercantilism, free trade, globalism—that in practice are unsustainable; ideological, all-inclusive, and often, but not always, totalitarian societies (communist, fascist, liberal-democratic, and now multicultural and techno-educational ones) that, being conceptual artifacts, are humanly unnatural and eventually unacceptable by the ordinary classes of people, social elements, and even majorities that feel compelled to rebel against them. Today these are being fingered as “populists” by the “establishment,” the elites who deplore and fear them about equally.
Not all systems are unnatural; the ages-old social system based on marriage and the family, for one, and the class system, which was challenged relatively recently in human history by a new and deadly system: the nascent egalitarian left in 18th-century Europe. And it is necessary to distinguish between systems and institutions, which are not themselves systems but established elements within a particular system. Monarchies are political and social institutions encompassed by the wider society, whether it appreciates them or not. So are the churches, of which the Roman Catholic Church is historically the preeminent example. It is true that in recent centuries the Church has been attacked, rejected, and in some instances disestablished by dissenting and otherwise hostile parties. Yet in its early stages, anti-ecclesial sentiment was largely confined to the intellectual class, and later extended to the social, economic, and political elites created by modernity that began by disestablishing Her, went on to persecute Her, and ended by mocking and ignoring Her, as they are doing today. The attack on the churches in the late 18th century and in the 19th by the popular classes had nothing populist, in the modern sense of the word, about it. Rather, it was an expression of liberal resentment in the early modern period of organized religion, and even religion itself, viewed as a pillar and arm of an exploitative and repressive establishment that is always and everywhere the enemy of liberal reform and a friend to “reaction.” Alternatively, popular feeling has arisen against the Church when the faithful have perceived Her to have grown corrupt, venial, and even heretical—unfaithful to Herself. An obvious example is the Republic of Ireland’s apostasy, beginning in the latter half of the 20th century and reaching its completion in the present day as the Irish people, progressively disabused of their extremely latitudinal and in many instances heretical clergy formed on the model of the Second Vatican Council, allowed themselves to conflate a generation of spoiled priests and other churchmen with the Church Herself and Her dogmas of two millennia and succumb to heresy, though the vast majority of the Irish still consider themselves faithful Catholic men and women.
The historian John Darwin (After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires) views systems of empire as the default form of government in world history. He does not argue that empire is the best, most human, or most popular form of government, only that it is the form to which, in time, all other forms revert, or are on the way to reverting at the time of their demise, or to which they are likely to revert. Darwin demonstrates how this principle works, not why it does. Perhaps the answer is that empire is a systemic type that is natural in its development but unnatural in its completed form. This could be the reason why, once an empire has been established, its dissolution begins straightaway. This was true of the ancient Chinese empire, of the Mongol empire, of all subsequent European empires, of the ramshackle empire known as the Soviet Union as one group—geographical, racial, religious—after another grew restive under imperial rule, then resentful, then angry, and finally rebellious, and now of the American empire. Resistance is certainly “popular,” yet it is more than that. It is populist in the proper 21st-century meaning of the word because it searches for a return to a more natural and comfortable social and political state of things; if the group or groups in question wish to “progress” further, from genuine human freedom toward some inhuman ideological utopia, then that is a subsequent ambition or program, invariably the invention of an intellectual elite. Usually, “populism” seeks a return to the pre-imperial past based on ancestral belief and tradition, old custom, former institutions, and a lost social unity characterized by social, religious, or racial homogeneity—or all three. The religious wars in 17th-century Europe, provoked by the inflexible application of the principle “Cuius regio, eius religio,” fit this category of resistance and can plausibly be described as “populist” in their inspiration. So can the opposition by the forming middle classes to the feudal system and objections by merchants late in the 18th century to the mercantile system they succeeded in replacing with the system of free trade that dominated the 19th century. Free trade in turn was ultimately doomed by the inability of the smaller national economies to withstand the terrible exigencies of the gold standard that overwhelmingly favored the larger ones. The result, Karl Polanyi argued, was the Great War that destroyed free trade as a system, and after that the popular resistance to attempts to reimpose both it and the gold standard on postwar Europe. The Industrial Revolution was opposed by the landed gentry of Europe, the European working class, and the intellectual one, left and right equally. The totalitarian communist and fascist systems that took shape as a direct consequence of the war were so egregiously antihuman, unnatural, and wicked that the second of them was shortly defeated and destroyed by the great democratic powers, and the first collapsed under its own contradictions a generation later. Now in the 21st century the latest socio-political-economic system, known to its supporters and admirers as liberal-democratic-capitalism and to its dissenters and enemies as neoliberalism—the same system Francis Fukuyama claimed 30 years ago marked the end of history—is being challenged by people and interests who, whether consciously or not, see rule by the new bureaucratic-technological-antinational-global elite as the latest in a long line of artificial systems developed by dominant elites with no care for or account taken of what is humanly valuable and significant; what is dear to human beings regardless of their race, their religion, and their culture. If this really is “populism,” then we need to recognize populism as shorthand for what is best in human nature and human society, not what is worst; to praise, welcome, and encourage it, not denigrate, strangle, and destroy it.
Neither historians nor anyone else views the bourgeoisie that replaced feudalism, the free-traders who overcame mercantilism, the workers, politicians, and men of letters who worked to restrain and humanize industrialism, and the anticommunists and antifascists of the 1930’s (and since) as “populists.” So why are the popular movements that are challenging the postmodern Behemoth being tarred by the elites with what in their eyes is the meanest and most contemptible of epithets? The reason is that, early in the 21st century, the leading edge in this latest systemic change is a popular, not an elite, force for the first time in history. What new system, if any, will replace the present globalist arrangement we cannot of course foresee, as history in postmodern times continues to accelerate with ever more inhuman rapidity into an increasingly unimaginable future. Meanwhile, to be a populist today is simply to have a true idea of what it means to be a human being and live a human life in an increasingly inhuman world.